Louisianians show little concern about West Nile as tally of infections mounts

Friday, August 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ People who converge on the French Quarter at dusk in search of vampire lore seem unworried about the smaller and far more numerous bloodsuckers that spread the West Nile virus.

The mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to five deaths and 66 other infections this year in Louisiana, has prompted warnings to stay inside at dusk and dawn to minimize the chance of mosquito bites. But the people who run ghost and vampire tours in the French Quarter say business hasn't suffered a bit.

``We've got bug spray. Every now and then someone'll ask for it,'' said Cynthia McGinnis, manager of Ghost Tour Co., which gives a daily 8 p.m. tour.

The West Nile outbreak centered in Louisiana is the worst since the virus first appeared in this country in 1999. Mosquitoes thrive in the muggy climate, and saucers under the potted plants on French Quarter balconies are as likely a breeding spot as soggy swampland.

Gov. Mike Foster has declared a state of emergency because of the outbreak, hoping to qualify for federal funds to pay for mosquito eradication.

Kevin Tusa, owner of a French Quarter pharmacy, said he has been unable to keep insect repellent in stock. ``I ordered some today, but the order came back `temporarily out, please reorder.' It's been like that for a couple of weeks,'' he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported 112 human cases of West Nile this year across the nation, more than half in the past week.

A central Mississippi man who died Thursday likely died of the West Nile virus, state health officer Ed Thompson said. He said more testing was needed to confirm preliminary results. The death would be the first outside of Louisiana in this outbreak.

Illinois reported its second human case of the disease Thursday, in a 57-year-old man who became critically ill with encephalitis, a swelling of the brain.

On Thursday, the CDC announced an additional $10 million will be sent to states to fight infected mosquitoes. The agency already handed out $17 million a year, but as more states requested help, the fund didn't cover requests.

Douglas Guth, 46, who lives in New Orleans and is recovering from West Nile virus, thinks the attention given to the disease lately has been overkill. But Richard Holekamp, who nearly died from West Nile encephalitis, disagrees.

Holekamp, who doesn't remember most of his illness, cannot drive or read because of retinal swelling.

``I'm still not over it,'' said Holekamp, 62, who became ill in mid-June.

He woke up one Monday feeling too sick to go to work, and by that Friday, he felt bad enough long enough to call his doctor.

``During the night, I found myself wandering around the house, quite literally lost in the house. I'd find myself on the floor in other rooms. My wife tells me I fell out of bed a lot of times,'' he said.

Most West Nile virus infections _ 179 out of 200 _ will cause no symptoms at all. Twenty may cause a flu-like illness like Guth's, and one in 200 may cause encephalitis.

That's part of the reason Guth, who suffered a week of nausea and two weeks of headache, feels people are overreacting. He worries that people are overusing pesticides and using the wrong ones for the job.

``That's got to be worse for public health in the long run than this little flu bug.''

Dr. Tlaloc Alferez, the infectious disease specialist who diagnosed Guth's case, applauded his viewpoint.

``This is not a crisis. It's a problem,'' she said. ``If you are told `Wear long sleeves, wear insect repellent, don't go out in the morning or dusk, wear light-colored clothes,' and you don't do it and you jog in skimpy outfits and get bit by a mosquito, that's no one's fault but your own.''